Presentation Challenges in the C-Suite

As a spoken communications coach, I’m often asked about the kind of executives I coach. While the profiles of executives are too diverse to stereotype, the timing of coaching is something many executives have in common.

One of the most common times for coaching is when a seasoned manager or executive is promoted to the C-Suite. And, the reason is that while communication was an important skill for the manager, it quickly becomes a critical skill in the C-Suite. Even the most confident executives are a little unnerved as the audiences get bigger, the messages get broader and the expectations seem to soar.

The shift in expectation may seem unfair, but it is very real and has lasting implications. My initial conversations with C-Suite executives often focus on understanding that the role as a communicator has shifted from one who outlines next steps to one who sets overall direction. Content shifts from clear details to broader ideas and vision.

Personal style skills are placed under close observation. Audiences form quick impressions of all of us when we stand up to speak. For a C-Suite executive, initial impressions are lasting ones. When a middle manager speaks at a company-wide meeting, he may lack energy or focus as he delivers his thoughts. While it doesn’t do much to motivate the audience, he still has the opportunity to sit down with his group and reinforce his ideas in a smaller setting. For the C-Suite executive, it’s more of a one shot approach. When he lacks energy or focus, the audience holds onto that impression for six months to a year until they see him again in the same setting.

Here are some of the most common pitfalls made in C-Suite presentations and ideas for avoiding them:

Developing a Support Team: One advantage of working in the C-Suite is that you’ll never have to develop your own presentation. The challenge is learning to work with a support team in a manner that makes efficient use of everyone’s time and ideas.

Most executives work better with one speech resource, rather than several. So instead of enlisting someone from a different department with each new audience or topic, the executive should develop a good relationship with one person who can coordinate content from various departments.

Setting the Message and Direction: Many executives give up control of a presentation too quickly. I’m often called in to help when an executive is frustrated with a script. The writer has continued to edit and revise the script but can’t seem to please the executive. The challenge is that the executive is looking for an overall message, and the writer is already on the details.

The executive should stay involved in the concept long enough to frame a message and an overall direction for the presentation. Then, the writer has a much better blueprint to follow.

Personalizing Stories & Examples: Audiences remember stories and examples. Executives miss the mark by adding stories for personal touch when they haven’t actually been personally touched by the story. Examples used should be individualized to the speaker, even if it takes a little extra effort to pull it off.

When I coach executives who share stories of sales victories or business challenges, I always ask: Have you spoken to the individuals involved? Do you really understand the context of this story? I’m surprised how often the answer is no. Executives should get stories and examples first hand. This eliminates any potential to get the story wrong, it insures the executive can tell the story in his own words, and it builds rapport with those in the audience who will know the details first hand.

Minimizing Use of Visuals/Support Materials: C-Suite presentations are more about direction, than detail. And, visuals support details. So, while PowerPoint may still have a place in the board room, the use of visuals should be significantly reduced. C-Suite executives should be shifting from high content to high contact.

I also encourage executives to find one visual way of presenting a concept and use it over and over again. Executives become synonymous with their messages, and visuals should be the same. If an audience sees plans for future growth represented on a timeline one month and on a pie chart three months later, the audience assumes the concepts are totally different. Repetition helps an executive build consistency.

Seeking Feedback: It seems everyone stops talking to you when you reach the C-Suite. There are just too many risks associated with being honest with the boss. Executives need feedback, especially new executives; to be sure they’re connecting with audiences.

Some executives bring trusted advisers with them to the C-Suite. Others find coaches who can help provide insight and perspective on senior level communication.

Prioritizing Involvement: As a speech coach, I wouldn’t tell an executive to stop speaking. But, I do advise some executives to limit the amount of speaking. And, the reason is that when they become over committed, speaking is an afterthought and the presentations are just not good. A positive impression can create great benefits for a company, but a negative impression can take months to overcome.

Balance is the answer. Every C-Suite executive has a number of speaking commitments that are critical each year from shareholder meetings, investor presentations, all company meetings, client conferences and media interviews. Define a number of public presentations, such as trade events and community groups, that you feel you can handle. Develop one core presentation that can easily be tailored for different audiences.

While the timing of coaching often coincides with the move to the C-Suite, it’s turns out to be a great time for support. It provides the opportunity for an executive to develop new habits and gain confidence in the ability to connect with larger audiences, define broader messages and exceed expectations in front of any group.